Why Croydon needs more and better democracy, not less

CROYDON COMMENTARY: For all the talk of introducing a directly elected mayor for Croydon, what’s been overlooked is the need to make every vote count, writes Green Party candidate PETER UNDERWOOD

More than half of Croydon voters want to have a directly elected mayor in charge of Croydon Town Hall

There are lots of people in Croydon who are really annoyed at the council. I’m one of them. But electing a mayor instead of a council is a move in the wrong direction.

It seems that decision after decision at the council goes against residents’ wishes, and even when the council say good things they immediately contradict them with what they do.

They declare a Climate Emergency but still support expanding Gatwick Airport. They say they want to cut down on car use to reduce air pollution, but still support building a 3,000-space car park to suck even more traffic into central Croydon. They say they want to protect green spaces, but then hand them over to developers to build on.

This last issue of planning has really wound people up. We all understand the need for more homes, but instead the council is just focusing on building more properties. These are not homes for Croydon people to live in, they are just luxury flats that the people who really need somewhere to live can’t afford.

There is a belief that the reason behind these problems is that the council is dominated by three or four individuals who are making all the decisions – decisions that the majority of residents don’t agree with. So how do we fix this problem with local democracy?

Unfortunately, yet again the spectre of a directly elected mayor is being raised in Croydon. While I can understand that people are really unhappy with some of the actions of our council, the idea of putting all that power in the hands of one person is a move in completely the wrong direction.

Why do people who are advocating for a directly elected mayor think that that person would be any more popular or in tune with residents’ wishes than the current council?

When you are complaining about all the power being in a few people’s hands, how does putting all that power in one person’s hands make things better?

City Hall: no Mayor of London has ever got 50% of the first ballot

If we look at past results in elections for the Mayor of London, not one of the elected Mayors has ever got more than 50 per cent of the vote on the first round. That means every Mayor of London had more people voting for someone else, rather than for them. Why would Croydon be any different? Why would we not end up with a Mayor that most people didn’t want and didn’t agree with?

The other problem with directly elected mayors is that it is really difficult to get rid of them. There appears to be no mechanism in place for removing a Mayor of London, no matter how bad they are. At least in our current system at the Town Hall, political parties can follow the traditional route of staging an internal coup against unpopular leaders and voting in someone else instead.

So if electing a mayor isn’t the solution what other options are available?

Croydon currently uses a cabinet system, similar to national government, where the majority group splits the council’s responsibilities into smaller chunks and appoints a cabinet member to make decisions on each of those areas.

An alternative is to return to a committee system. Each of the policy areas is overseen by a committee of councillors from all parties who collectively make the decisions. This is the system they use in Sutton Council. The idea is that this will deliver decisions that take into account more views but, as Sutton residents will tell you, in practice, the party with the majority of councillors still just forces through what it wants.

This for me highlights the key point – if you want to look at improving local democracy you don’t start with how councillors are organised, you start by looking at how they got to be councillors in the first place.

On Croydon Council at the moment, the Labour Party has well over half of the councillors.

But far less than half of Croydon residents voted for them.

Collectively, Labour and the Conservatives have all of the councillors, but that means many thousands of Croydon residents who voted for other parties have no one representing them on the council.

If we want to make Croydon Council more responsive to the views of residents, then we need to make sure that the council reflects the way that residents voted.

What we need is a voting system that ensures Proportional Representation, or PR.

A PR system would have a number of advantages. The first is that it makes every vote count. You would know that you could vote for the party you really wanted to and your vote would make a difference. This puts power back in the hands of voters.

If every vote counted there would be no such thing as a “safe ward”. We currently have too many councillors who just rely on the fact that their party always gets elected in their ward. If we had a PR system then all councillors would have to show that they deserved your vote.

A key point would also be that councillors would be elected based on votes from across the whole of the borough – parties would have to work on building support across Croydon, not just rely on support in their traditional stronger areas.

As shown in the table above, a PR system would also mean that in Croydon no one party would have an overall majority.

On these results from 2018, Labour would still have the most councillors but they wouldn’t have had the power just to force through decisions. To get any decisions through council they would have to persuade some councillors from other parties to support, or at least not oppose, their ideas.

Croydon’s ward map after the 2014 and 2018 local elections suggests no Labour voters live in the south of the borough, there are no Tories in Thornton Heath, and the LibDems and Greens don’t exist at all

This would make it more likely that any decision would have greater support among the residents of Croydon and reduce the chances of the council forcing through unpopular decisions.

Bringing in PR at local elections would require a change in legislation at national level, but the support for this is growing. The Westminster system is similarly undemocratic (the Democratic Unionist Party has 10 MPs, with far fewer votes than the Green Party who have one MP), and the calls for a fairer voting system are growing ever louder.

If you want to join that call or just find out more information then visit either the Electoral Reform Society or Make Votes Matter.

Next May, we have elections to the London Assembly. This election does have a proportional element – it is why there are Green and LibDem Assembly Members – so make sure you vote and vote for the party you really support, as every vote will count.

  • Peter Underwood, right, is the Green Party candidate for Sutton and Croydon in the London Assembly elections. He’s also been chosen to be the Greens’ candidate for Croydon South, in case Boris Johnson does decide to call a snap General Election

About insidecroydon

News, views and analysis about the people of Croydon, their lives and political times in the diverse and most-populated borough in London. Based in Croydon and edited by Steven Downes. To contact us, please email inside.croydon@btinternet.com
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7 Responses to Why Croydon needs more and better democracy, not less

  1. PR is certainly one, and a very good one, solution to the problem of serially elected dictatorships which is what we tend to get with simple, first past the post electoral systems.

    The problem is that it would be impossible for one Council amongst the 317 Local Councils and 32 London Councils to unilaterally adopt it as its own system.

    Failing that, a committee based system offers the only glint of genuine democracy and representation in the current system. Elected Mayors are a risk. Some have been and are brilliant. Some have been disastrous. Some have been criminal. One in particular has been both comic, risible and ineffective ( and see where that got him!) .

    The risk is too great. The only other alternatives, ones that allow for reasonable mental stability, are emigration or prayer!

  2. The immediate priority for progressives in Croydon is to oppose the idea of a Directly Elected Mayor. As Peter says this places even more power in the hands of one individual than the current “Strong Leader and Cabinet” model does. A return to the “Committee System”, while not providing all the answers, does at least involve all councillors in decision making and reduces the powers of patronage of the Leader.

    Tory MP Chris Philp is currently trying to persuade residents associations and others to support a petition for a Directly Elected Mayor. If they get 14,000 or so signatures there has to be a referendum on the subject. It’s important that we explain to people that this is not the answer.

    Croydon Council has set up a Governance Review, looking at all the different options for running the Council. This will shortly begin public consultation. I urge all who are interested in extending democracy in the borough to participate in this and support a “Committee System plus Scrutiny” model.

    • Were you directed to determine that “the immediate priority for progressives” was to do the bidding of the Great Leader, David?

      It is notable how, of late, you have begun dissembling lines which the council leadership would have us mere plebs all swallow, without question.

      Thus, your reference to the “Strong Leader and Cabinet” model: in Croydon, it is only referred to in the context of the “Strong Leader” model, and that means Tony and his closest cronies, with all others doing as they are told, or else, and living with the consequences of some appalling decisions and a absolute avoidance of ensuring that the council’s officials are in any way accountable to the people they are meant to serve.

      Your attempt to deceive on behalf of Newman continues with your reference to the Governance Review, which you say is supposed to be “looking at all the different options for running the council”. You should know – well you would know if you read Inside Croydon, and we know that you do – that Newman has deliberately limited the terms of the review, tying the hands of the chair and the heavily loaded panel, and explicitly ruling out the possibility of even considering the role of a Directly Elected Mayor.

      Newman must be hoping that he can pass off this sham of a review as in some way reforming. Yet it appears doomed to deliver a report that will support his use of patronage – using hugee amounts of public money – to maintain his own position.

      With one or two apologists for Newman, such as you and notable councillors he has in his pocket, lining up to justify his appalling record and failure of the people of Croydon, what chance will true progressives ever have of proper reform?

  3. Chris Flynn says:

    I hate Brexit, but was the 2011 AV referendum actually more damaging?

    • Obviously not.

      • Chris Flynn says:

        If we had AV, would Cameron have needed to placate Brexiteers with a referendum?

        • The AV referendum was the stitch-up by which Cameron conned the FibDems into enabling austerity. That referendum was designed to ensure that AV would be rejected. It succeeded.
          The Scottish referendum was Cameron’s cunning plan to split the non-Tory vote in Scotland. It worked.

          The EU referendum was Cameron’s attempt to pacify the far-right of his own party after the 2015 General Election. He pushed his luck once too often.

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